Happy & Full

I have pen pals all over the world, including children in Spain, Mongolia and China. Our correspondence enriches my life in ways that are hard to explain. Sometimes I think that if more people made an effort to personally connect with people in other countries, we would learn more about each other and in the process, learn how to make the world a better place.

What’s a pen pal? It’s a person with whom one becomes friendly by exchanging letters, traditionally via postal mail, and often someone in a foreign country whom one has never met. It’s perhaps unusual in this day of social media and communication via texting, but I have enjoyed corresponding with pen pals since I was a child so long ago - back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth. Or so to speak.

I can’t say that I have a favorite pen pal, but I feel a very strong connection with a young college student in China. Song says that his English is poor, but in written form it is superior to the English language skills of many American adults, and that has made it easier for us to know and understand each other. He comes from a difficult, impoverished background but is determined to become a doctor. The next step in his career is a postgraduate entrance examination that will determine what medical school he attends, and at times that exam looms over him like a dark cloud. Recently he told me “my dream is very big and it is difficult to realize it” and “I can hardly breathe under such great pressure every day.” He asked me, “Have you ever encountered this problem in your life?” 

Have you ever felt that your ambitions were impossibly difficult to achieve? I certainly have, and this is what I wrote to him.

Dear Song,

Last week I received news about your college studies and internship. It was fascinating to see your photos of the ophthalmic surgery, the radiology lab, and you at your desk. I was happy to read that when you are at school, working hard with your classmates every day, you feel “very happy and full”. I love that phrase: happy and full.

A few days later, I received your letter telling me about the great pressure of studying for your postgraduate entrance examination and your fear that you will not score well enough to enter the school of your choice for the remainder of your education. Your writing is so eloquent, and I recognize very well the feelings you express.

It seems to me that some people just float along the surface of life, never thinking or feeling deeply. It’s hard for me to understand their seemingly carefree existence because I am not that sort of person. Like you, I am a person who thinks and feels deeply, who believes in things very strongly, and feels compelled to tackle every project with total commitment, attention and energy. Neither the “surface” person or the “deep” person is right or wrong, and it’s probably good that humans are all made different from each other.

I have to admit that being a deep person is not always easy. We expect so much from ourselves, sometimes to an unreasonable degree, and find it difficult to relax enough to enjoy what we’re doing – to feel happy and full. One of the most challenging things in my life – that is still a challenge – is to keep a good balance. I wish I could give you the magic formula for how to do that. All I can do is to reassure you that you are a good person, a hard worker, and full of potential. I believe you will succeed, but making that happen will involve a lot of hard work on your part. It probably won’t be easy, but every minute of it will be worthwhile.

I have a friend who dreamed of being a schoolteacher. She married young, had two children, and worked at any job she could find in order to provide for her family. When the children were old enough to go to school, she went to college to study education, but her education took a long time because she also had to care for her family and work full time. After 10 years, her dream came true and she was finally she was able to become a teacher full time. Ten years sounds like a very long time, doesn’t it? But in fact it was just a fraction of her lifetime. She worked as a teacher for 35 years, and she made a difference in the lives of countless students.

Now, here is my story. Two weeks after I graduated from college at age 21, I married and moved to the town where my new husband planned to attend graduate school. We could not afford for both of us to go to school at the same time. While my husband was in school he was not able to work so I had to work at a low-paying job in order to pay rent and buy food. Somehow I found things to like about my lowly job, met interesting people, and learned useful if simple things about how to be a good employee and improve my performance of my job. When my husband finished school we moved again, and this time I got a better job where I learned things about international trade that I found fascinating. Every few years I would find a better job, and then an even better job, as I searched for work in international trade. I was 34 years old the first time I embarked on a business trip overseas. It had taken me 10 years to achieve my goal, much longer than I would have liked, but every minute of it was important and worthwhile. I discovered abilities that I didn’t know I had and acquired skills that proved to be very useful. I learned a lot, met many people who helped me grow, and I gained confidence every day.

I must also tell you this. If you’re not able to go to the medical school of your dreams and instead attend another school, you will still learn a lot and become a great doctor. You are a good student and any medical school will give you knowledge, but YOU are the one who will use that knowledge in important, life-changing ways that will help so many people.

You can feel happy and full when doing more things, and different things, than you can imagine today. The more new things you try, the better your life will be. You will discover things you’re not good at or you don’t like, but you will also find new things that you never imagined before, things that make you feel happy and full.

Your friend, Jean

Now I ask you: is there something in your life that makes you feel happy and full? What priority do you give it? Do you ever feel cheated because other tasks push the happy ones aside? Do you feel guilty when you do take time for the happy ones? I was raised by parents whose belief in the “Protestant Work Ethic” drove them to be frugal and disciplined, to work hard without expectation of reward, pleasure or satisfaction. Even so, I saw glimmers of happiness and satisfaction in both of them when they were engaged in the things that they cared about. I embarked on my education and business career with the same goals as my parents’: hard work and discipline. Along the way I discovered the experience of happy and full in unexpected ways, but it took me years to give those things a priority, and sometimes I wonder if I should have given them a higher priority much sooner. Now I believe that the happy and full is (yet another) gift from God, and I encourage you to accept that gift and honor it in your daily life. When we are happy and full, we are in a great position to share that gift with others. So, don’t be stingy: give it your all.

Chinese student looking at a dark cloud and an exam paper

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